In a fit of blatant obviousness, Wilco called its new album Wilco (the album) and its first single “Wilco (the song).” “The song,” like “the album,” is the product of Jeff Tweedy (the songwriter-singer-guitarist) and performed by Wilco (the band): John Stirratt (the bassist), Glenn Kotche (the drummer), Mikael Jorgensen (the keyboardist), Nels Cline (the lead guitarist), and Pat Sansone (the other keyboardist). On October 16, Tweedy will bring the band, the album, and the song to Hill Auditorium.
All this obviousness is a huge change for Tweedy and his band. In a career seemingly built on confounding expectations, Tweedy has rarely repeated himself. After the breakup of his first group, alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy founded the polymorphic Wilco and, with the band as his instrument, created rough-and-ready country, ambidextrous pop, experimental alt, and mind-melting psychedelic, along with dozens of other stylistic mash-ups, making radical changes in direction from album to album and sometimes from song to song. In the process, Tweedy has hired and fired his musicians, embraced and alienated his fans, and driven himself to the edge of gibbering madness–then gotten out, looked around, and made music of what he saw there.
Tweedy has held it all together with the excellence of his band, the strength of his will, and the brilliance of his songwriting. The members of Wilco-and there’ve been twelve so far-have always been virtuosos, playing standard rock band and country band instruments as well as all manner of electronic instruments with consummate technical mastery. With Tweedy driving it, Wilco forms a rock chamber orchestra with an ensemble that’s tight, relaxed, and kicking.
But above all, it’s Tweedy’s songwriting that has most confounded expectations-and most focused his band. Musically, he’s gone every which way but straight, veering from simple to complex and from the sublime to the ridiculous. Lyrically, however, he’s gone only one way: straight down, boring into his heart and soul with an artistry that compares with work of the great song poets of our age: Dylan, Lennon, Cohen, and Cobain. Tweedy’s lyrics also compare with those masters in their evocativeness and their elusiveness. We have no idea exactly what Tweedy means when he sings “I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue,” but we surely get the point.
So when Tweedy writes a song like “Wilco (the song)” with a verse built over standard chord change and a chorus with the lyrics “Wilco loves you, baby,” you may wonder if he means it, if he’s just being ironic, or if it’s something else entirely. We’ll have to go to Hill to hear him sing it live to find out-and even then we may never know.